Chess Lessons Exposed: Never Say 'I Have To'

Chess Lessons Exposed: Never Say 'I Have To'

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This series is about chess lessons and how a chess teacher tries to push key points home.

If you are looking for a chess teacher, don’t grab anyone that comes along! Take your time, take a lesson or two from various teachers so you can get a feel for their different teaching styles, and you’ll eventually find just the right teacher for you.

Remember: if you and the teacher have zero chemistry, then look for another teacher. There is no fault for either side, but a successful teacher-student relationship is all about great communication (on many levels). If that doesn’t exist, both parties need to move on.

I NO LONGER TAKE STUDENTS! I have a few that are old friends, so I teach them. But that’s it for me. Fortunately, you can find tons of experienced teachers here on 

Test 1

B.B. said, “I have no idea how to promote the d-pawn.”

How would you deal with this position, and how can Black make progress?

Test 2

White just played 10.Qb3, eyeing d5 and b7. How would you react?

Answer to Test 1

If you tried to solve the position by looking at moves, you’re doing it all wrong! The first thing you do in any position -– but this kind of “the opponent is helpless” position in particular –- is to break things down verbally, get a firm grasp of what both sides need to do strategically, and only then should you look for moves that cater to the position’s plusses and minuses.


Key Points

  • Black’s a solid pawn ahead.
  • Black’s knight is the only piece that isn’t doing anything.
  • White’s kingside pawns are vulnerable to attacks by Black’s bishop (f2) or knight (…Nf6-h5-f4 hitting g2 and h3).
  • White is passive (actually helpless). Make sure it stays that way!
  • The c3-square can be used by Black’s knight or bishop.
  • The a2-pawn can be attacked by Black’s knight by going to f6-d5-c3.
  • Black wins right away if all the minor pieces are traded.

If you play a move that doesn’t address these things, then you’re playing blind and will rarely enjoy any kind of chess success.

Once you have come to terms with the above key points, it’s easy to create a plan based on the position’s strategic necessities:

White is helpless. In a middlegame or endgame where your opponent can’t do anything, TAKE YOUR TIME, IMPROVE THE POSITION OF ALL YOUR PIECES AND PAWNS, and only go for the gusto after you’ve primed everything in your camp.

I’ll repeat this with a slightly different slant: TAKE YOUR TIME! White is NOT having a good time, so the more you quietly torture him (cat and mouse), the more chance he’ll make a mistake (though by quietly building, you’ll wipe him out anyway).

Black’s problem was that he thought it was all about promoting the d3-pawn, and by embracing that falsehood he overlooked all the rest of the board! The first stage should be to activate the knight. A series of moves like ...Nc7-e6-f4 (targeting g2) is tempting, as is ...Nf6-d5 (after Black moves his king off that square) is also tasty since the knight threatens (from d5) to leap into f4 (going after g2) and c3 (going after a2).

In short: take notice of potential weaknesses and strive to pressure them.


In the actual game Black played the awful 36...e3??:

Let’s return to our original position and show a couple, more logical, possibilities:

Answer to Test 2

In the actual game, Black played the perfectly logical 10...Qd7, defending b7 (d5 can’t be touched due to 11.Qxd5?? Bb4+ winning), eventually outplaying his opponent and getting a winning position.

I was pleased with the way he played, but I would have preferred 10...0-0 or 10...Nc6. I constantly preach that if your opponent makes a threat, be sure that it really is a threat! If it’s not, then play the move you really wanted to play. Training a student to fully understand and accept this concept will help him in countless games and in countless different situations.

In the present game, I would have wanted to castle as quickly as possible. So the question should have been: “I want to castle. I know he can’t take on d5, but what if he takes on b7?”

This kind of questioning is very different from the usual: “He threatens to take my pawn on b7. I have to defend it!”

There’s a huge difference between the two. One seeks the truth so that the best move can be played. The other is a mix of fear and resignation (you resign yourself to having to defend b7). Most players live in that state without knowing it, so I do my best to point it out and change that unfortunate mindset. In my book, How to Reassess 4th Edition, I call that kind of unconscious resignation “The Curse of I Have To” (similar to “The Curse of I Can't,” which I also explore).

By answering 10.Qb3 with 10...0-0, Black not only makes a psychological statement to his opponent, but he also takes a lead in development. Let’s look at some possible lines:

Lessons Learned in This Article

  • Before you make a move, do your best to understand the position as a whole. Remember: moves are made to help push a specific agenda. If you don’t have an agenda that matches the existing imbalances, your moves will be hit or miss.
  • If someone makes a threat, don’t believe it until you’ve fully verified that it is indeed something that needs to be dealt with.
  • Learning good habits (like laughing at threats) will enrich your game, while bowing to threats will create a habit that’s hard to break.

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